PSA: The Searchers (1956), or Everything’s Bigger In Texas

3 09 2009

Everyone knows The Searchers is an awesome Western, right? Wait, you guys have seen The Searchers, right? For your sake, I hope you have, because it remains one of the most beautiful, thoughtful, and influential Westerns of all time. Despite decades worth of new films coming out and expanding the genre, something about The Searchers moves me in unexpected ways that the new films just can’t touch. It’s a hauntingly emotional Western epic from the man who virtually invented the modern epic, John Ford. It’s one of my favorites, and I think that perhaps a whole new audience needs to take its beauty in.

It starts after the Civil War in 1868. A Confederate veteran named Ethan is coming home from his long stint in the war only to have his family butchered by Comanches shortly after he arrives. Everyone is left dead with the exception of his niece Debbie, who is captured. In a blind fit of rage, he gathers together a small group of men, and, as fast as they can, they follow the Comanches as they charge through the immense state. But stalking the Comanches is no easy task that requires time, and as the trail grows colder, Ethan only gets more desperate and vicious in his search. As the months go on, can the gang keep their cool and rescue the girl, or will they end up getting killed in a fight that seems less and less likely to even matter?

Man, what a great film. This film tackles a lot of touchy subjects that seem tame compared to today’s lofty dramatic standards, but in the cultural and political climate of the 1950s, this was groundbreaking work. Particularly with its handling of racism in the Old West. The main character, Ethan, is a bonafide racist; his hatred of the Indians knows no bounds. Not that he doesn’t have the right to be angry, but his detest of the Comanche blinds him to everything else around him, crippling him emotionally and endangering the rescue mission itself. At one point, he says that he’d rather kill his niece than see her living with Comanches. A troubling sign for troubled times, to be sure, and it’s dishearteningly not a very far-fetched statement for him to make, considering where and when they lived.

Although it was filmed in Utah, John Ford captures the essence of Texas and the majestic Comancheria with his masterful eye. I would’ve believed that Ethan was scouring West Texas the whole time if I hadn’t read the production notes. Ford really knows his stuff, and with this brilliant masterstroke, he grips at our very hearts as he peers into the terror of isolation. It’s all very unsettling at times, the unhinged rescue party like grains of sand against the creeping backdrop of the angry, scorching, infinite horizon. You get a glimpse into the reality of life in the West that most people usually never ponder on; the vastness of our nation and the solitude most people faced on a day-to-day basis. Fortunately Ethan has his trusty crew with him, but at times it seems like the word never connects around again, like it just keeps expanding forever and anon.

The acting is great but subtle; exceedingly subtle for the 50s. Ethan is John Wayne, in a role that would define his career. Never was he more grizzled, desperate, and thirsty for blood. On a certain level, all of his other Western performances are judged accordingly compared to his role here. It is the one I think he will be remembered for, and it really is that good. Jeffrey Hunter plays Martin, Ethan’s right hand man. He is fiercely loyal, and sticks with him farther than anybody else in the crazed hunt for Debbie. Hunter plays the young devoted sidekick with a passion that really impressed me. It was very good, and if there are any other good Jeffrey Hunter films out there, I’d love to see them. Natalie Wood plays the older Debbie, the Debbie that has grown up with the Comanches for all these years while Ethan has been committed to rescuing her. I won’t ruin her character development, but it’s pretty impressive. I honestly never liked Natalie Wood much before this, but I’m willing to give her another chance now after this.

There are plots that nobody talks about but are incredibly important. It’s all told through body language and the framing of certain shots. The relationship between Ethan and his brother’s wife at the beginning of the film, for example; nobody ever says anything, but it’s kind of warm and cozy, if you know what I mean. It explains a lot about why he’s driving so hard for revenge, and perhaps even why he cares so much about Debbie (his daughter, perhaps?). It’s not definite, but just a hunch, and it’s details like that which give this movie so much depth.

Perhaps I’m predisposed to liking The Searchers because of my Texan heritage. Perhaps it’s my intense John Ford fetish that makes me enjoy it so. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve always wanted to stalk a group of Comanches for long periods of time. Whatever the case may be, I really, really like The Searchers. It has everything a Western should and a whole lot more. Much like High Noon, it has a definite moral and social message that still stands out in the genre above its peers. John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, and Natalie Wood are all wonderful here, John Ford is astounding, and the script based on the novel by Alan Le May is excellent. What more do you need? Check it out! I give The Searchers 10 Comanche hatin’ sons of bitches out of 10. My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow I go back to the 90s where I finally go toe to toe with Tank Girl! Until then!

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